Director Saw Teong Hin talks about turning his successful play, Hai Ki Xin Lor, into a film.

From movie to play, and back to being a movie again. Five years after Saw Teong Hin wrote the script for the semi-autobiographical Hai Ki Xin Lor (English title: You Mean The World To Me), he is finally preparing to turn it into Malaysia’s first ever feature film to be filmed in Penang’s distinctive Hokkien dialect, having already turned it into a successful play that premiered to critical acclaim at the recent George Town Festival.

Literally meaning “new road by the sea front”, Hai Ki Xin Lor is the old Hokkien name for Penang’s Victoria Street (now known as Lebuh Victoria), where Saw grew up.

The story revolves around a Penang-born filmmaker named Sunny (played by Frederick Lee in the play), who returns home to find inspiration, but upon visiting his sister, ends up turning up some old family demons instead.

Saw is probably best known for directing the Bahasa Malaysia epic Puteri Gunung Ledang, as well as its subsequent theatre musical version, so he is no stranger to both mediums.

However, Hai Ki Xin Lor is such a personal project for him that he was willing to wait five years for it to get made.

Hai Ki Xin Lor was supposed to be a movie first – I wrote the script five years ago but I couldn’t get the money to make it,” Saw said during an interview in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

However, the main reason for the delay was because he was adamant that the film be filmed in Hokkien.

“There were a few interested parties, but they wanted me to make it in Mandarin. That was a big issue for me. It’s also semi-autobiographical, so I didn’t want to compromise. If I had to take time to get the money to get it made, I’d take the time. I wanted to do it properly,” he explained.

So what prompted the decision to make a film this time around?

“Truthfully, the money!” he said with a laugh. “After I made the play for the George Town Festival, which turned out to be a big success, I started getting offers to turn it into a film, so I agreed.”

Turning Hai Ki Xin Lor into a play first was a useful exercise for Saw. It helped him to further fine-tune his script, which he hopes will improve the film.

“I had to distil it to a one-hour play, so it made me think about what the essence of the story was,” he said.

“While we were rehearsing, some of the actors were asking me ‘why this and why that’. That was when I realised that if THEY were asking me questions, then the script is not clear enough. So, I clarified a lot of things for the play, which I’m going to do for the film as well.”

According to him, the play has far fewer characters than the film version, as he decided to focus on the relationship between the mother and her son.

“The film will involve the father and an uncle – in the play these characters are completely absent. It’s like the difference between a novel and a short story – you just go deeper with a film,” he said.

Although Saw hopes to retain several members of the play’s cast, including leads Lee, Chelsia Ng, and Neo Swee Lin, he also said he will be looking for bigger names for the film.

“We want the film to go regional, so we are trying to get as many big names as possible,” Saw explained.

During a recent press conference, producer Leonard Tee said the estimated budget for the film was RM1.8mil and it would be 100-minute long with a 15-strong cast including Ng and Kedah-born newcomer John Tan. Internationally acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle will also be joining the project.

Although no release date has been set for the film, Saw said pre-production will begin in March, and filming should commence in May.

So does he really think that there is a market for a fully Hokkien film?

“Did you know that Hua Hee Dai (Astro’s dedicated Hokkien TV channel) has one of the largest viewership in the country?” Saw asked. “If anything, I think the market (for Hokkien fare) is under-served. This being the first Hokkien film, I’m hoping there will be a strong response to it.”

Even when he was writing the script five years ago, he was convince it would be a viable commercial feature film, Hokkien and all.

“I really did! But no one agreed with me! They thought it would be an arthouse film.

“But I’m still very much a commercial filmmaker, so even though this is a semi-autobiographical story, I’m not going to turn it into an arthouse film!” he concluded with a laugh.